Definitive Guide to Short-Form Thumbnails
The hook is the thumbnail. Learn how to make gorgeous thumbnails that get views and help you grow. We cover tactical tips and unspoken advice.
Sat Nov 26 2022
13 min read
MrBeast does well at YouTube. He was early, he put in the work, he comes up with original ideas and above all - he is obsessive about his content.
How important are thumbnails?
According to some MrBeast has videos that are 100% finished. Fully filmed and produced. Videos that MrBeast and his team spent millions of dollars on and he won't post them until he has the perfect thumbnail and title. On another podcast, MrBeast said that he spends between $5,000 to $10,000 per thumbnail to make sure that it's great. What good is an incredible video if nobody clicks on it?
On YouTube and with long-form videos there is an over-reliance on thumbnails to be discovered. There is thumbnail and click bait. That is part of the game. The thumbnail problem is somewhat easier to solve in short-form content, especially on an app like FreshCut where we have a feed relevant to you, but thumbnails do matter.
Why do thumbnails matter on TikTok or FreshCut?
- Your profile is your home page in the app. When you show up in someone's feed - the typical flow will be like this. Follow you and go check out your profile. Within seconds someone will make a snap judgement. Your profile will appear in both the web and the mobile app so there are 2x the reason to invest in thumbnails. So when someone scans our profile - what are they thinking and how do we come off? What do we stand for? What kind of content do we make? What is our mood?
- Your videos will appear in playlists. Unlike other short-form apps, FreshCut has curated playlists with high quality content. Thumbnails in these playlists matter. Playlist is yet another way you can get discovered on FreshCut and thumbnails on our clips will show up in playlists.
- The Discover tab is another place where thumbnails matter. If someone is looking for a specific genre or game - they may go to Discover.
- Search results is another. Maybe someone searches for Valorant clips. We are a Valorant content creator and our video comes up in search. What is it about our clip that will get clicks?
- Link previews is yet another place thumbnails count. People share your clips all the time. Your community member might be sharing a link to that same Valorant clip in their Discord or on Twitter. That will be the first and often the last impression you make with an entirely new audience. How do we maximize that opportunity? A great thumbnail will help.
These are just some of the examples. They are present not just in FreshCut, but also in YouTube, TikTok, Twitch, and all over the web.
Here's the main theme for why thumbnails matter
There are 24 hours in a day. There are millions of content creators and there are thousands of other stimuli from video games to Reddit to links from friends. Why is it that our content stands out among a sea of clips and videos? Why should someone spend a few seconds exploring our profile, watching our short-form clip, following us? The hook is the thumbnail. We need to invest in that hook.
Another popular YouTuber LoverFella shared a good perspective on thumbnails.
Thumbnails earn the eyes. The title earns the click.
Before we get into the tactics, here's everything we did to prepare for this. We spent a lot of time studying. This is why we think this is the definitive guide for thumbnails for content creators.
- We watched 50 videos from MrBeast's main channel, 50 videos from MrBeast gaming, and 50 MrBeast TikToks, including those that did not do well relative to those that did. Yes, they are all amazing, but some do better then others.
- Listened to many interviews with MrBeast and to those who analyzed his interviews and TikToks. Many. A true meta study!
- Scoured the web for feedback and learnings from his team, including his manager Reed
- Studied every blog and Reddit thread that we can find on the topic of thumbnails. We threw out all the noise and kept what we think matters
- Talked to 12 experts in the content creation space. These range from content creators who are just coming up to partnerships managers to business managers to folks who've done courses similar to this one.
- Browsed through 100s of popular clips on YouTube Shorts, Medal.tv, Instagram Reels, Triller, and Snapchat spotlight.
- Studied 80% of the creators on TikTok's own list of creators of 2021. These creators span all categories from foodies to culture icons. We literally went to their profiles and similar to what we did on YouTube - wrote down patterns in how their thumbnails show up.
So we did all of this so that you don't have to. Our goal is to share what we learned so that you can grow as a content creator whether it's on FreshCut, Medal, Powder, TikTok, Reels, or any other app.
We are going to share a few things that are not discussed enough in the creator community. These tactics will help you grow and help you get discovered. No gatekeeping here.
We are also going to reinforce a lot of the things that you may know about thumbnails, grounded in our research. We are not going to dance around things. This will be practical and to the point. Our goal is that you can read this guide, turn around, and put this to work right away, getting more views, followers, and tips.
Let's get into it.
How to make a perfect thumbnail to get maximum views and follows for your videos and clips
- Use a thumbnail that you built. Do not rely on pre-sets. Tools like YouTube studio or FreshCut Studio offer pre-set thumbnails. These are made with different algos by cutting through your video and suggesting a slice of the clip as a cut. It's a nice shortcut, but you are much better off making your own thumbnail and uploading a custom thumbnail.
- Stay consistent. What is your theme? Pick a theme and go with it. Is it bold text with a certain color hue? Is it your face and you are building your own brand (ex. MrBeast)? 5+ year goal is your thumbnails are recognizable and stand out among others. Is it a certain placement of your game footage that is always in specific corner of the video? What is the consistent through line? Maybe it is always a specific color background (dark is common based on our research), your face in one corner and bold header in another?
- Make it simple and readable
- Follow best formatting guidelines:
- for short-form clips: PNG file format, safe area is 144 x 144 px and export size is 162 x 162 px
- for long-form video: JPG or PNG, under 2MB, 1280 x 720 px, 16:9 aspect ratio
5. Take 10 minutes to come up with a title for your clip and caption for your video. You spent all this time making the perfect play in game, editing the clip, why not invest a few minutes to ensure that it pops?
6. Make sure your text is large enough to read. Everything should be big and easy to see. Do not be afraid of swapping your thumbnail if it isn't readable once you upload your video. When you upload your video on your profile or when it appears among other videos in search results on YouTube, TikTok, or FreshCut - does the thumbnail pop and can people read the caption?
7. Use visual contrast. Visual hierarchy and high contrast are fundamentals of design. You want 2 color themes that accentuate each other in your thumbnail and make it stand out.
8. Pick ~2 key elements in your thumbnail. Two interesting things should be the focus. This can be the visual, the hyper simple caption, or your face. The point is that there shouldn't be too many elements to crowd out the thumbnail.
9. If you are using faces in your thumbnail...Show emotions. Be yourself. Emotions attract. Humans attract. We want the thumbnail to pop. This doesn't mean going deep down the rabbit hole of being quirky or weird. If you browse through 100s of videos you will see that there is now an over-correction on that trend. Too many quirky faces. Is that real? It does mean emotion. Maybe it is your eyes. Maybe it is something else. This also means not worrying too much about how you look. If you look silly - so be it.
10. Do not repeat the title in the thumbnail. Title and thumbnail should be complimentary. Repeating the title is a common mistake that people make.
Review of tools for making thumbnails for your content and your brand
Pros: accessible to anyone, massive library of presets, has tools for other video/photo editing, affordable, bunch of stock photos if you need that, team access if you are a creator with a team backing you
Cons: a lot of the content is going to be generic and won't be a great fit for your specific community (i.e. gaming), limited export settings and some issues download raw files, limited free version - which will be common, Canva ToS are known to be somewhat stringent in the creator community. They claim that they own IP you make
Pros: easy to use, started as a tool for creators first and claims to have 10M creators using it, more modern then Canva, also has a number of options for video editing and many templates, team accounts available, has a few AI enabled tools
Cons: somewhat aggressive upsell to paid version with watermarks and many features behind a paywall
Pros: free, web-based like the others, great for those who want to try something with zero commitment, popular in the community, has some unique features like ability to make infographics (if you need that)
Cons: ad-supported so if you are annoyed by ads this isn't for you, doesn't run on all browsers, no ability to store in the cloud, won't be as feature rich as other versions
Above is the iOS version, but there is also a web version.
Pros: lots of features, issue-free and high quality mobile app, thumbnails, videos, photoshop equivalent features, templates for Stories/Reels/profile pics and a lot more
Cons: pricey - that is the common feedback from the community
Pros: go-to set of tools for content creators, more hip and relevant templates for content creators and gamers, simple to get started
Cons: no teams feature, free to try, but need to get Ultra which unlocks access to all Streamlabs tools
Pros: insanely feature rich app that will fit anyone from beginners to pros, will grow with you as you venture on the art journey if you chose to do more then just thumbnails, gorgeous design - 2x Apple award winner, the brushes are incredible, timelapse recording is a cool feature - imagine doing a time lapse of how you did your thumbnail? More content!
Cons: works on iPads only, not free but for $9.99 one time fee it is affordable relative to some of the subscription prices that are out there, you may need an Apple Pencil (more $) if you choose to go for high fidelity work, no vectors
Pros: tons of templates (think Canva), iOS and web apps, many presets for different platforms from YouTube to TikTok, no commitment with free trial
Cons: most of the good features are behind a paywall, can be difficult to restart design process if you are in style A and want to swap to style/format B, can be difficult to navigate for some
These are just some of the tools we studied and what we've seen is used by creators. You can try most of these for free and see what works for you.
If we had to recommend one tool - it would be Streamlabs because it is more authentic to content creators and to gamers.
Behind the scenes. Thumbnail and video advice on things that are seldom shared. We wish more content creators knew about these things so let's share.
- Mess with photo or other editing software. Yes, you have the highest KDA in your LoL games and the goal was to be a streamer/gamer/content creator, but this is part of the job now. It takes 30min of focused work to learn. There are tons of courses on YouTube for free on all the tools that we covered. You can even ask us in Discord and we will help. Bottom line is that editing your thumbnail and experimenting with a few tools until you find your tool and your process will pay off in the long run. Remember the theme? The thumbnail is the hook.
- Check out Fiverr. We do not think this is the path, but we know of some creators who had success. Here's our recommendation for how to navigate Fiverr assuming you have ~2hrs on experiments and $50-100. First, figure out what you want roughly. What style, what vibes, which creator you like (ex. I want my thumbnails to be like Shroud's or MrBeast's). The more direction you give to your Fiverr contractor the better. Once you land this - you can copy paste this to everyone. Hire 5 thumbnail contractors. Or 10. This depends on your budget and your time. Last, give everyone the exact same assignment. Now watch the assignments come in. Fire everyone else and keep the best one you like. Now this is your go-to and you work with them to produce thumbnails consistent in your style. You may even chose to go direct and undercut Fiverr at some point so they get more $.
3. Do spend the time on thumbnail and title. There is a term called pareto principle or an 80/20 rule. 80% of the results come from 20% of the effort. Spending zero minutes on our thumbnail and just picking a frame of the video that is auto-generated by the FreshCut creator studio will be fine, but is it doing your content justice? What if you spent 10 minutes on a thumbnail? How many more views and follows will you get? Imagine if this is after you have a process and these thumbnails are now all consistent and on brand. Does spending hours or thousands of dollars on a thumbnail make sense? Do we want to mirror MrBeast? Probably not, although that is your call. The point is that if you spend just a bit of time on a custom thumbnail - you should see great results.
4. Avoid clickbait. Short-term you might get clicks, but long-term you do not want this reputation. You are building for the long-term. We've gone back and forth on this one. We've gotten some conflicting advice on this during our research, but at the end - we think that being authentic to yourself and to your community is the path forward. Building for the long-term is the truth. Clickbait does not last.
5. Experiment. A/B test. Run tests on everything from thumbnails, to design, to titles to tags. Do this until you land a model that you and your community are in love with and then double down on that. What does that mean? Try stuff. Try different software, try different design schemes for your thumbnail, try different uploading times. You can mess with all of it until you lock in on what works and you will know when it does. The goal is to try, learn, and keep going. Do not be afraid to fail. Do not be deterred by something not working on day 1 or a video that you spent time making a thumbnail for not generating enough views. That's a learning! Keep moving forward.
6. Cut the intro and the outro in your clips. Again, experiment with this, but the general advice and sentiment we get is to cut. Will this cut down your content length? Yes it will. Our research shows that anything you read about length when it comes to videos is old school. This is especially true for short-form content and clips. We are here to entertain. The #1 thing that matters is engagement. Can we hook the viewer right away? If not - they are gone. So we recommend getting straight to the point with short-form clips on FreshCut, TikTok, Reels and others. Your community will reward you.
7. With time - upgrade your setup. Better camera will do good. Here's an equipment guide and we will share more. Figure out your lighting. You don't need fancy lights, but lighting is king. Natural light works. We'll have a full lighting guide coming soon!
- Thumbnails matter and are worth investing in. Thumbnails help us hook the viewer, stand out among other content, convey our brand, and grow our community
- It is worth it to make a custom thumbnail. Experimenting is key to growth as a creator, but once you land your style - stay consistent. It should be simple, readable, and have visual contrast. More tactical advice above.
- There are many tools you can use to create thumbnails. Almost all of them come with free and paid tiers and a number of pre-set templates. Streamlabs thumbnail maker is a nice place to start because they are authentic to gamers and content creators.
- There are many pieces of advice that are seldom shared, ranging from avoiding intros and outros in your videos to embracing experimentation to a practical guide to Fiverr.
Enjoy the journey! We are here to support you and to help you grow.
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